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127 dead and 9,000 arrested in Duterte-style drug crackdown in Bangladesh

A closer look at the day's notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: a violent drug crackdown led by the anti-terror squad in Bangladesh has seized 1.7 million meth pills and 23 kg of heroin; grieving father gets some answers to mystery of son's death; Japan's baby bust.

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

Police arrest a group of people for allegedly taking and selling drugs during an anti-narcotics operation in Dhaka, Bangladesh, this week. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina authorized the anti-drug campaign that human rights activists have compared to the aggressive drug war launched by Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. (Monirul Alam/EPA-EFE)

Welcome to The National Today newsletter, which takes a closer look at what's happening around some of the day's most notable stories. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.


  • A drug crackdown in Bangladesh, led by the country's anti-terrorism squad, has seized 1.7 million methamphetamine pills and 23 kilograms of heroin
  • Adrienne Arsenault on the answers a grieving father is finally getting to the mystery surrounding his son's death
  • Japan's population is shrinking, and the trend is unlikely to reverse itself any time soon — here's why
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here

Bangladesh drug war

Bangladesh has launched its own Duterte-style "war on drugs" with a national crackdown that has seen 9,000 people arrested and at least 127 shot dead over the past 17 days.

The sweeps, led by the police Rapid Action Battalion — normally an anti-terrorism squad — have seized 1.7 million methamphetamine pills and 23 kilograms of heroin to date, according to the country's home ministry.

Bangladesh's Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) soldiers stand guard during a raid on suspected drug dealers at Mohammadpur Geneva Camp in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Saturday. (Mehedi Hasan/Associated Press)
But human rights groups are expressing concern over the large number of suspected dealers and users who are dying in what police say are almost daily gun battles.

Today, the Bangladesh Daily Star reported five more killings by police overnight. In most of the cases, police reported that "rival groups" of drug dealers were attacking each other, drawing officers to the area.

"Sensing the presence of police, drug dealers opened fire on law enforcers," says one official account. 

And a raid of a slum in the capital of Dhaka, involving 500 officers and several police dogs, resulted in the arrest of 28 suspects and the seizure of three kilograms of cannabis, along with smaller amounts of methamphetamine, heroin and Demerol.

Dhaka Metropolitan Police load a group of people into vans after their arrest for allegedly taking and selling drugs on Monday. (Monirul Alam/EPA-EFE)
Many of the killings have occurred in areas close to the border with Myanmar —the source of much of South East Asia's illicit drugs. Heroin, opium, and pot are all produced in its hard-to-reach outlying states, often under the watchful eye of rebel groups or the military.

But meth — or yaba as it is known locally — has become Myanmar's biggest export. In 2015, police in Bangladesh seized 50 million pills. The following year their haul was 98 million.

Still, it hardly makes a dent. Authorities estimate that 300 million pills crossed the border last year.

Bangladesh border guards search a fishing boat during their patrol along the Naf River in Teknaf between Myanmar and Bangladesh, in April. Meth is spilling into Bangladesh at record rates. (Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images)
And the trade isn't just a problem in Bangladesh. Last week, customs officials in Malaysia discovered nearly 1.2 tonnes of crystal meth disguised as tea in a container at Kuala Lumpur's port. The shipment, valued at $20 million US, had originated in Myanmar.

Authorities in Bangladesh have frequently blamed the influx of Rohingya for both the increased availability of meth and its soaring use. They cite the drug problem as a justification for a controversial plan to establish a new refugee camp on an isolated island in Bay of Bengal

Bangladesh border guards examine small bags of the drug yaba (methamphetamine) recovered from a passenger bus at a checkpoint along the Teknaf-Cox's Bazar highway in Teknaf in April. (Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images)
However, the new drug war seems to have more to do with the upcoming elections and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's bid for another term.

"The government's development work in all sectors is being overshadowed by the failure to curb the curse of drugs from the country," a high-ranking member of the ruling Awami League told the Dhaka Tribune last week.

Adrienne Arsenault on assignment

Maybe you missed this one yesterday. That's totally understandable, on a day when the hot, sour air of cross-border fighting choked all else.

But there was another story that sideswiped me. And when the pieces all fell together, the unshakeable memory was of a frozen January day and a father convulsed in grief.

The gist of the story is this: Jewellery thief from Edmonton, Abdullahi Ahmed Abdullahi, in line to be extradited to the U.S. to face terror charges.

At the accusation's core is that Abdullahi stole to help fund the trips of his relatives to fight with ISIS. Fight and die they did, in Syria.

Abdullahi Ahmed Abdullahi was ordered extradited to the U.S. by an Edmonton judge on Thursday. (Court exhibit)
Funny how the fundraisers rarely seem to go themselves, but that's another thought for another time.

My thoughts today are for a shaking, weeping Somali man, Ahmed Hirsi, sitting in a car in January 2015 looking at a picture of his son — his dead son, and his dead nephews. "My son, they make brainwash. Where is Syria? I have never been."

Who had dragged his son Mahad into extremism?

He imagined it would be a shadowy stranger, the way we all envision the alley bogeyman.

But if the FBI documents are correct and the charges hold, it was family and close friends who did this.

When we spoke back then, after learning of the death of Mahad and the others, Ahmed Hirsi seemed so lost. But he was brave; one of the first fathers to ever come forward about losing a child to the grip of ISIS extremism.

Already isolated, that was a hard thing to do.

But he wanted to talk of what he had dreamed for his family, and especially his son.

Ahmed had studied political science, got his masters degree in Italy and moved back to Somalia in the '90s with beautiful plans. But then civil war broke out. He and his wife fled to a refugee camp in Kenya, along with their children.

In 1995, in the name of saving his family's life, he escaped to Canada.

It meant giving up everything. Work was hard to find, and caring for the whole family wasn't easy. The family struggled. There were challenges with alcohol and money and purpose.

"We came to Canada for peace," he said, but finding peace is more complicated than finding a new address.

Mahad Hirsi and Hamsa Kariye are two of three Edmonton men believed killed in November 2014 while fighting for ISIS.
His son Mahad grew up and studied, but didn't entirely find his way and ended up out West. As a family they drifted, far.

There were Facebook messages and texts and calls, and then not much. Eventually there was nothing at all — except the worst of all news, that Mahad was gone. As were his two cousins.

Dead somewhere on a battlefield in someone else's war.

The fear of death's pull was what drove Ahmed to escape Somalia. In that car on that winter day when we spoke, he just could not begin to understand how death and war had stalked his family and kids so far away.

His life? Ruined he said. He still did not know how this all unfolded.

But then came the news out of Edmonton about the jewellery thief and the FBI documents.

Just a flash of a story many probably missed.

- Adrienne Arsenault

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Japan's baby bust

Japan's population is shrinking at a record pace.

Just 946,000 children were born in 2017, according to figures released today by the country's Health, Labour and Welfare ministry. Meanwhile, deaths hit a post-war high of 1,340,433, resulting in a natural decrease of 394,373 people.

It was the second year in a row that births fell below the one million mark and there are no signs that the trend will reverse itself.

A baby and her mother look at flowering Kanzakura cherry blossoms at the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo in March. Just 946,000 children were born in 2017, and Japan's population is shrinking at a record pace. (Issei Kato/Reuters)
The number of marriages — still an important indicator in a socially conservative society — hit a new low of 606,863. And Japanese women are now on average bearing 1.43 children, well below the 2.07 that would be required to keep the population stable.

These are not new problems. Japan has counted fewer children (14 years and under) for 37 years running, and the fertility rate has been below the replacement line since 1975.

But the 2017 figures suggest that the government of Shinzo Abe isn't having much luck in its efforts to persuade young Japanese women to have more kids. As a result, its target of a 1.8 fertility rate by 2025 — as well as the longer-term goal of stabilizing the population at 100 million by 2060 — might be hard to attain.

A nursery school employee takes care of a baby in Yokohama, Japan. 2017 was the second year in a row that births fell below the one million mark in Japan, and there are no signs that the trend will reverse itself. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)
Experts differ on the root source of the problem.

Some suggest that young Japanese people simply aren't having enough sex, with nearly a third of the 18 to 34 demographic claiming to be virgins.

The latest national census found that nearly a quarter of men, and one in seven women, had yet to marry by the age of 50 — the highest unwed figures since the survey began in 1920.

Babies sit on the starting line ready to compete in a crawling competition in Kanagawa prefecture, Japan. The nation's fertility rate has been below the replacement line since 1975. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)
Others point to the economy. Almost 40 per cent of the Japanese workforce is now part-time or temporary, with little job security, few benefits and generally lower salaries, which means that even those who wish to have kids might not be able to afford them.

Surveys suggest that only about a third of such "irregular" workers in their 30s are married, compared to more than half of full-time employees.

The obvious solution to Japan's dilemma, increased immigration, remains politically unpopular in a society that has long sought to limit outsiders. Chronic labour shortages in the construction sector and service industries have forced the government's hand a bit, however, with 145,000 more foreigners allowed into Japan last year.

As it stands, 2017 was the seventh straight year that the country's population — currently at 127 million — has shrunk, and 28 per cent of citizens are now aged 65 or older. At the current rate, it's estimated that Japan will have 40 million fewer people by 2065.

Border to and fro

How interrelated are the Canadian and U.S. economies after decades of free-trade? Check out this graphic:

Quote of the moment

"My relaxation is a complete collapse of a human being. There's certainly no backbone. It's a dissolution of humanity is what it is. I'm nothing but compost most of the time."

- Actor Bill Murray comes up with a memorable response to a throw-away question about what he does in his free time in an interview with the Guardian.

Bill Murray holds an award he received on behalf of Wes Anderson for best director during the 68th International Film Festival Berlin in Germany on Feb. 24. (Markus Schreiber/The Associated Press)

What The National is reading

  • North Koreans to meet Trump, deliver a letter from Kim Jong-un (CBC)
  • Malaysia crowdfunds to help pay the national debt (Al Jazeera)
  • Spanish PM ousted, socialist leader set to take over (CBC)
  • The main ministers in Italy's new populist government (Reuters)
  • Bavaria mandates crosses for public buildings (Deutsche Welle)
  • Antarctica to hold first Pride celebration (Earther)
  • Posh royal 'expert' exposed as Tommy from upstate New York (The Guardian)
  • 'Supersonic Tic Tac' UFO stalked U.S. aircraft carrier for days, says Pentagon (Fox News)
  • Too much bad news can make you sick (CNN)

Today in history

June 1, 1977: Magician Doug Henning on CBC's psychic game show

Long before he started hawking Chrysler Magic Wagons, Doug Henning was the first celebrity guest for the pilot episode of Beyond Reason, CBC's psychic game show. An astrologist, palm-reader and clairvoyant all take turns passing off generalities — "At times you clash with your mother" — as specifics. But their guesses about his professions — stunt flyer, dancer and singer — are far off the mark of Broadway magician.

Magician Doug Henning on CBC's psychic game show

45 years ago
Duration 13:23
On the pilot episode of Beyond Reason, an astrologer, a palm reader and a clairvoyant try to guess the identity of the mystery guest.

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Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.